Wendy Suzuki, a Professor of Neural Science and Psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University, once said in a TEDtalk in reference to exercise that “simply moving your body, has immediate, long-lasting and protective benefits for your brain”.
There aren’t many things we can do for the body or mind that have such positive and immediate impact. Sure, we can eat a bowl of ice cream when we’re feeling down, and briefly feel better because of it, but it also comes with some big drawbacks; we put on weight and we’ll likely have a sugar crash a few hours later. Drinking alcohol can make us happier in the short term, but that’s simply borrowing tomorrow’s happiness, and more often than not, results in a hangover and lasting negative effects.
Exercise, however, will have both a positive chemical effect on your brain reducing stress and improving mood, as well as resulting in lasting positive benefits for the brain and body.
When you simply look at the correlation between people that exercise and happiness, it’s hard to say whether exercise makes one happy or whether happy people tend to exercise more. One study of Stanford University student-athletes actually found that happiness for this group was more a result of their personality and temperament than it was of athletic prowess. However, when we delve deeper into the science, we can see that exercise is a huge contributing factor.
The University of Vermont found that just 20 minutes of exercise can boost someone’s mood for up to 12 hours. So next time you’re feeling down, go for a 20 minute run or gym session and reap the rewards for the next 11 hours.
How does exercise improve happiness?
Exercise does a lot of things to the brain. You’ve probably heard of endorphins, right? These are hormones that are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland within the brain. Their main job is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals, but they also produce a feeling or euphoria. This is what makes you feel happier instantly, and the effects will last a good amount of time.
Endorphins are the only “feel-good” chemicals released through exercising though. Your body will also produce serotonin, norepinephrine, BDNF and dopamine, the reward chemical. All of which have huge positive benefits for the mind. The bottom line: the combination of these five chemicals will boost your mood, and have been proved to help to relieve both anxiety and depression.
Exercise doesn’t just produce more hormones though, it actually helps to reduce the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body, both of these chemicals in high doses can cause stress. So simply by reducing these, you’ll be able to reduce the stress your brain feels. It goes without saying that reducing negative chemicals and increasing positive chemicals results in a huge shift towards feeling happier.
Exercise also has greater and longer lasting impact on the brain, helping to preserve brain function and prevent cognitive decline. Which will strengthen the brain making it less susceptable to negative chemicals and thus making it easier to maintain a happier outlook on life.
How much exercise if enough?
Cardiovascular workouts are great for mental health and happiness. Studies by US Department of Health have shown that 30 to 60 minutes of exercise, 3 to 5 times per week will give you significant mental health benefits. However you don’t need to go all out to gain benefits, research has also shows that a short stroll can improve your mood.
In terms of quantity, a Canadian study of walkers found that a single 30 minute daily exercise session had a bigger effect on mood than splitting this into three 10 minute sessions. Therefore, showing that you should try to do your exercise for the day in one session, rather than spreading them out. A big walk is better than a few walks small walks here and there.
Types of exercise
You don’t have to only focus on cardiovascular work. Strength training will also have a positive and immediate impact on happiness, it has also been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and has the added benefit of self-esteem. There is a sweet spot when it comes to happiness and strength training, though. People felt happier after a moderate intensity strength training session than after higher or lower intensity sessions (Rutgers University).
If cardio and strength training aren’t your thing, then perhaps a more relaxed exercise activity like Yoga and Tai Chi will suit you. Each of these have similar, albeit smaller, benefits to cardio and strength training such as relieving stress and depression, but they can also add in the benefit of relaxing and quieting your mind.
It’s important to find something that works for you. We’re far more likely to stick to something if we enjoy it. So although a moderate 45 minute run outdoors might have the greatest impact on your mood, if you don’t want to do it, you’re less likely to continue it. No matter how much dopamine you’re body rewards you with, if you hate running, you’re not going to do it.
Team sports might be more up your street. Playing tennis, squash, netball or footy all have the same positive benefits on your mood, and added into that you’ll get a social aspect of exercise.
In essence, whether you go for a walk or participate in a high energy team sport, doing something is better than doing nothing. If you find something you love or something you will do regularly, you’ll be one step closer to happiness and a less stressful life. You’ll improve your brain’s function over your life, which has also shown to decrease the risks of dementia and strokes. Exercise is good for your brain and your body.